Page last updated at 11:36 GMT, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Islanders 'happy to stay cut off'

By Simon Pipe
BBC News

Map of St Helena

When - in December - the British government put on hold plans to build an airport on the island of St Helena, local councillors spoke of their "bitter disappointment".

But now a number of islanders say they want to stay cut off from the rest of the world.

The 200m airport project would have changed forever one of the most isolated places on the planet.

A speck in the South Atlantic, St Helena is 1,200 miles from the African coast and more than twice as far again from South America.

The delay to the airport leaves uncertainty over how the island will be supplied with food and other needs from 2010 when its supply ship is due reach the end of its working life.

But an informal poll conducted by the St Helena Independent, one of two newspapers serving the 4,000 people on the island, has found that some people are against belatedly joining the jet age.

Many islanders have been worried that the airport would change their slow pace of life.

There have also been doubts about whether it could really give the island a viable economy for the first time in 350 years of British rule.

Nineteen per cent of the Independent's 1,900 readers voted in the poll and 58% said an airport was not needed. Another 1.4% said they did not care.

The unexpected and overwhelming change in the world economy has created a different background to the decision
Andrew Gurr
Governor of St Helena

Readers were also asked whether they personally wanted an airport. Just over a third said they did, against 63% who did not.

An internet poll showed more people in favour, although it was thought to include islanders living in the UK - many of whom are based in Swindon, Wiltshire.

Epic journey

A petition on the Downing Street website says an airport is vital to St Helena's future. It calls on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to revive negotiations over it.

By 19 January, it had been signed by more than 260 people, although many appeared not to be islanders.

The governor of St Helena, Andrew Gurr, has travelled to London to press the case - a journey that typically involves making a two-day sea voyage to Ascension Island and then catching a twice-weekly RAF flight.

Tourist journeys via Cape Town take even longer.

In a letter to islanders, Mr Gurr wrote: "The decision on the airport hangs very much in the balance.

"The unexpected and overwhelming change in the world economy has created a different background to the decision."

But in a letter to the St Helena Herald newspaper, British-born islander Bobby Robertson said: "No economist who has ever come to this island will state that the airport will guarantee prosperity.

Few people seem bothered. Some are even relieved
Bobby Robertson
British-born islander

"The best I got from an economist was a 50-50 chance of success.

"No-one on this island was going to give a penny towards the cost. All costs were going to be met by the British taxpayer.

"I have been asking people how they feel about the postponement and few people seem bothered. Some are even relieved."

Ship strife

St Helena was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It came under British control in 1659.

It has been dependent on British subsidies ever since - initially in the form of rice. The last time it enjoyed an economic boom was during the Boer War, when several thousand South African prisoners were encamped on the island.

The islanders have frequent reminders of the unpredictability of sea travel.

The RMS St Helena - the world's last Royal Mail ship - is expected to be at sea for an extra two days on its current voyage to Cape Town, because one of its engines failed.

In 1999, BBC News reported islanders' calls for an airport after the ship broke down completely and began drifting in the Bay of Biscay, leading to panic buying in the island's shops as supplies ran out.

Similar problems have forced Governor Gurr to abandon a trip to the even more isolated island of Tristan da Cunha, a dependency of St Helena.

He was to have sailed there from the Falkland Islands aboard HMS Endurance, but an engine room flood means the ship is now being towed back to Portsmouth.

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